Saturday, August 27, 2011

Clarifying last names in spoken Chinese

When calling in a take-out order in Chinese, it is common to be asked "你貴姓?" (Nǐ guìxìng?; What's your last name?). The normal response is "我姓...." (Wǒ xìng...; My last name is....), clarifying the character of your last name if needed. A small number of last names have two characters, but I won't get into those here.

Some last name characters are typically clarified in terms of some or all of their component parts (e.g., radicals). These descriptions can be pretty precise, where a component part(s) is/are only visibly "squeezed", or, e.g., an existing line(s) is/are lengthened, shortened, or moved "a little bit". Some such descriptions take a few more liberties.

I think the first time I was exposed to this clarification of last names was years ago, when I was talking on the phone to a native Chinese speaker, a guy who I had never met. He told me his last name was 張 (Zhāng). Then he added, 弓長張 (gōng cháng Zhāng).

Now, not having known about this common style of clarification of last names, and also not knowing the 弓 (gōng) character, I was pretty confused. Mentally imposing (quite incorrectly) a Western style first-middle-last (e.g., Franklin Delano Roosevelt) structure onto what he had just told me, I asked him if his full name was 張弓長 (Zhāng Gōng Cháng).

If anyone actually is named 張弓長 (Zhāng Gōng Cháng), that would be pretty weird -- it's kind of like someone being named Roose Velt Roosevelt. I think at that point in our conversation, this guy realized I didn't know as much Chinese as he thought I might. When we later met, he may have explained this style of clarification of Chinese characters, but in any case I eventually learned about it.

Both component parts combined without meaningful change:
  • 古月胡 gǔ yuè Hú
  • 木子李 mù zǐ Lǐ
  • 言午許 yán wǔ Xǔ

Both component parts combined with mild changes:
  • 耳東陳 ěr dōng Chén (The 耳 character changes this way, but it doesn't always change this way when it's a component of a more complex character.)
  • 人可何 rén kě Hé (The 人 character changes this way.)
  • 口天吳 kǒu tiān Wú (The 天 character grows "arms".)
  • 木易楊 mù yì Yáng (The 易 character gets an additional horizontal line.)

Some characters are identified purely by just specifying a portion of their parts. Within the context of last names, that is sufficient to identify them.
  • 草頭黃 cǎo tóu Huáng (The Huáng character that has the 草頭 radical.)
  • 雙人徐 shuāng rén Xú (The Xú character that has the 雙人 [double person] radical.)

Somewhere there may be a far more exhaustive compilation of such last name character clarifications. From my own experience, the above are many of the commonly used ones for relatively common last names. Note that last names are simply a subset of characters which can be clarified in this manner.

Some last names are so well-known and common, and other last names having the exact same sound are so rare, that it's unlikely anyone would ask for clarification. A good analogue in English might be Brown. If he calls for take-out, my favorite singer Jackson Browne doesn't likely get asked, "Is that Brown with an e on the end?"

I don't recall ever hearing of this type of clarification for any of:
  • 劉 Liú
  • 馬 Mǎ
  • 王 Wáng (三橫一豎王 sān héng yī shù Wáng, the Wáng character having 3 horizontal strokes and 1 vertical stroke, provided by Yitrun -- thanks!)
林 Lín is also in this well-known and common last name category, but it happens to have an "obvious" clarification, 雙木林 shuāng mù Lín (The Lín character that has a pair of trees in it).

The old question, "What's in a name?", has quite a different answer in Chinese!

Mercury Web Browser Lite app

For some months, the free Mercury Web Browser Lite was my favored "night browser", a browser that allows a significantly dimmer screen than normal for browsing in the dark.  Although I'm an Opera Mini browser guy (most of the time during the day, anyway), in 2012 I bought Mercury Web Browser Pro, so probably won't be updating this entry much, if at all, going forward.

The Lite version limits you to two tabs, which was actually acceptable for my usage. That was one tab more than my original night browser, Late Mobile Browser, which I wrote about here.

The paid version is more full-featured and seems to have quite a following. Still, Mercury Web Browser Lite already has quite a few features, and may still be of use to you.

Mercury Web Browser Lite 5.1 and 5.2 could identify itself (masquerade) as a different browser, as shown below (version 5.1), but that capability was taken away in 5.2.1 according to an App Store review.  That masquerading ability can sometimes be helpful, as I wrote about here, but if you didn't get a version before 5.2.1, you are likely too late, unless the company restores it in the future.  You could of course buy the Pro version to get that, and other additional features as well.

Ads on the iPod:
  • 5.1 did not show them.
  • 5.2 showed them (which led to many negative App Store reviews), though not continuously.
  • 5.2.1 no longer shows ads according to the company's version notes in the App Store.

Chinese vocabulary for today's world

Ordered by Pinyin syllables. I'll likely add notable other ones I come across going forward.

  • 部落格 (bùluògé): blog
  • 更新 (gēngxīn; first, not fourth, tone on gēng): update (e.g., an app)
  • 聯想 (liánxiǎng): auto-complete (which I mentioned previously here)
  • 下載 (xiàzǎi): to download
  • 消歧義 (xiāoqíyì): disambiguation (in Wikipedia when the object of the search could mean different things)
  • 在雲端 (zài yúnduān): in the cloud (referring to data)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

OverDrive Media Console & other e-book reader apps

11/1/11 WARNING: The 2.3.3 version of OverDrive Media Console apparently introduced a bug that prevents download of e-books to the iPod under iOS 4.3.5 (possibly under all earlier iOS versions as well). It may even wipe out existing e-books, but I cannot confirm that. Stay with version 2.3.2, or hope for a future fix. I ended up upgrading my iPod to iOS 5, and OverDrive 2.3.3 can again download e-books.

11/11/11 WARNING: Version 3.2 of Stanza, available 11/10/11, doesn't work under iOS 4 (according to multiple App Store reviews), although it is needed under iOS 5, which would not run the previous version, 3.1.

The free Overdrive Media Console app allows wireless downloading of assorted electronic media, e.g., books and audiobooks. You can check out such materials from libraries if you have a valid library card. The materials automatically expire at the end of the check out period, "returning" themselves. Beyond the choice of materials at my library, I imagine I could also check such materials out from other libraries in the network, but have yet to investigate.  As of December 2011, I haven't downloaded any audiobooks, so cannot comment on them.  OverDrive also has personal computer based software as well, which I think you can use to get additional material onto iOS devices, but I have not used it -- the iOS app meets my needs well as is.

In September 2011, OverDrive added Kindle compatibility to libraries in its network, broadening the e-book selection and also increasing the appeal of the Kindle app. I tried it out from my iPad, downloading material both wirelessly and wired, and was interested to see that Amazon later sent me e-mail (first warning that the e-book would expire in 3 days, later to say that the e-book had indeed expired) noting that if I purchase the e-book "from the Kindle Store or borrow it again from [my] local library, all of [my] notes and highlights will be preserved." (see also That seems to be a win for consumers, Amazon, OverDrive, and libraries, and a loss for Amazon competitors and privacy advocates.

12/8/11: After noticing that in Safari, Kindle books were showing on library websites only on an iPad and not on an iPod through this process, I contacted a librarian, who subsequently conveyed to me this information from OverDrive:
Please note that Kindle devices, Smartphones, and other small screen devices that operate a mobile versus a standard browser are not currently supported for direct checkout and download for Kindle Books. At this time, Kindle Books can only be delivered to a Kindle or free Kindle apps from a PC, Mac, or tablet. We hope to expand mobile access in the future.

Please ask your patron to contact Amazon to find out when they will be adding this capability. Amazon can be contacted by clicking on the 'Contact Us' button at the following link:
Mercury Web Browser Lite (version 5.1 and 5.2, but not 5.2.1) and Mercury Web Browser Pro can identify themselves to websites as other browsers. OverDrive starts up Safari, but you can copy the URL, paste it into Mercury, set Mercury to identify itself as Mobile Safari(iPad), refresh the browser if needed, and you will be able to access the Kindle e-books on an iPod (at least I could through my local library).  (6/2012:  For one Adobe EPUB format e-book, I could not download directly through Mercury Web Browser Pro, but could through Safari.  I usually get Kindle format e-books, so maybe this has always been the case but I have only discovered it now.)

Some of the following e-book commentary is directed toward public domain material, which is typically formatted rather roughly. Commercial e-books, such as those for sale on Amazon, are normally formatted nicely, so some of the following comments would not apply to them.

There are also older public domain materials which are freely downloadable and which don't expire; my library helps direct you to those as well. While the selection is of course rather "historical", from a quick look I found two eBooks which are sufficiently "timeless" and can be of use for my efforts at strengthening my Spanish:
  • Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar by C.A. Toledano (1917). Basic grammar rules presumably haven't changed much, if at all. I like to learn/relearn this stuff, although many would find it tedious and boring, e.g., how to conjugate regular verbs or spelling rules like "The diaresis [two dots] is placed over u in 'güe' and 'güi' when the u is to be sounded.", as a friend and I had similarly discussed some months ago, touching on the Spanish word for penguin, pingüino.
  • An Elementary Spanish Reader by Earl Stanley Harrison (1912).
It appears that material that originally used chart-style formatting visibly suffers in these presentations (e.g., the list of vocabulary equivalents in Spanish and English starting at the bottom of page 13 of Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar), but it's still usable.

I also downloaded Chess Fundamentals by J.R. Capablanca, of which I long ago bought a printed copy. However, the chess diagrams are squeezed very thin, so it's necessary to turn the iPod screen to landscape to see them properly. (My blog entry about this e-book under iOS 5)

Probably pure text, with minimal or no diagrams/charts, works best with OverDrive Media Console.

For normal reading, you can choose a sepia background, which I find more pleasant on the eyes, instead of white. OverDrive Media Console also has a Night Mode, to flip text to be white on a black background, plus a brightness control.

9/11/11: Public domain e-books are available through multiple iOS apps, not just OverDrive.  For example, Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar mentioned above is additionally available in all of:
An app's combination of features, including its access to material, may appeal to you enough for you to use it for all of your reading, or you might use different apps in different circumstances. For instance, in my own usage of Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar, I prefer direct access to the Table of Contents, so Kindle would not be my choice for that. iBooks has a brightness control, good for night reading. Kindle requires you to login (register the device) any time you cold-start the app, and while it is registered it will check for a sync when you start it, and maybe at other times (presumably part of how Amazon invokes security, e.g., as in the 2009 remote wiping of George Orwell's 1984 from Kindles). Stanza has a variety of themes (visual appearance of the text and background) for reading both in the day and at night -- first app I've noticed to have had such; vertical direction swipes also alter the brightness (up = brighter, down = dimmer). iBooks, Kindle, and Stanza all hide controls and informational notes (e.g. page x/y, plus the standard iPod top info bar which shows time, etc.) when reading, giving more space (at a premium on an iPod!) to the actual material.  If remaining battery power is ever a concern, any "night mode" which has white text and a black background should make the battery last longer, since less energy should be needed to illuminate the screen.

11/27/11:  Syncing across multiple iOS devices:
Kindle features the best syncing, including for Kindle e-books borrowed from the library.  iBooks cannot be used for borrowing library e-books, but otherwise may be close -- I cannot remember if I synced my small library across iPod and iPad manually, but my iPod has Winnie-the-Pooh, which came free at one point (probably when the iBooks app was released), but is currently not free in the iBooks Store, and was not on my iPad until I copied it there manually from PC iTunes as a result of writing this additional note.  OverDrive and Stanza e-book access is device-based; you must download each e-book from scratch onto each device.
12/10/11: With OverDrive, log in to your library account on each device onto which you want to download the e-book.  For any iOS device after the first, you should be able to (again) download materials that are checked out to your account (I was able to from my local library, anyway).

As a result of this investigation, Stanza is my preferred app for Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar.  Kindle is my favorite for reading library e-books, but sometimes a book I want to read is only available in epub format, for which I would happily use OverDrive.

12/12/11:  Currently Amazon runs a Kindle Daily Deal, where they have a very favorable discount on a different e-book each day.  You may wish to follow that by checking their website each day and/or by signing up for e-mail or Twitter notifications.  I learned about this special pricing the day after having sadly missed the chance to get the wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell e-book for $1.99.
1/3/12: As I write, Amazon is offering the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell e-book for $2.99! It's great to have a digital copy for convenience of reading, but the charming (or perhaps annoying, depending on the reader) print footnotes have been turned into endnotes. The print version generally (maybe always) has the explanation of a footnote (or at least the start of it) on the same page as the footnote appears. This difference in footnote presentation between print and digital copies would likely be more significant the first time you read the book, but this is my second (or third?) time through. Time will tell how often I turn to the now-endnotes.
Ah, I see Barnes and Noble is also selling the Nook Book version for $2.99. Both companies list the digital version's regular price as $3.99 ("suggested retail price set by the publisher" -Amazon), which I think is a significant drop from mid-December 2011. Competition may have truly been responsible for bringing consumers a lower price on digital copies of this book.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Late Browser Mobile app

8/27/11: I now recommend Mercury Web Browser Lite over the Late Browser Mobile app.

I have not used the free Late Browser Mobile app much, but it does give you the option to use a mostly darker screen for nighttime web browsing (darker than usual, e.g., with Safari). The top portion of the screen, which has the controls, remains at the normal brightness level. I imagine the developers did that so you could never inadvertently dim your controls down to where you couldn't find them.

However, that section of normal brightness detracts from a full-screen "dark-browsing" experience. Perhaps the developers could instead have restricted the lower limit of darkness, such that the controls in many instances would remain visible?

I imagine the developers wanted to save space at the top of the screen for their controls, so they removed the common iOS top bar which shows the clock time in the middle. Normally you can tap that time display to zip to the top of the document, but I don't see any way to do that in Late Browser Mobile.

This is the only app I can think of which displays an ad (the same one) twice, once at the top and once at the bottom of the initial search screen. Thankfully it seems only one would be visible at any one time, depending on how you've swiped the screen up or down, and no ads show when you've left the initial search screen.

The very bottom of the initial search screen has a 5-digit "LED" display which shows a number, which seems to be strictly ascending in my usage, and may indicate some quantity of the data you have downloaded in your browsing.

8/24/11: Wow, I didn't realize how many free browsers there are in the App Store. While I don't think any are likely to dethrone my favored Opera Mini browser, perhaps I'll find other browsers with a night mode.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

iHandy Level app

You never know when you'll be riding the Mount Washington Cog Railway and want to snap a quick photo showing how steep the climb is....  You may have to zoom in to clearly see, but I am holding the iPod almost level as the train ambles up the mountain.

This free iHandy Level app does indeed come in handy around the house, e.g., when mounting things on the wall.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Weather apps

The iPod comes with a basic Weather app, which I relied on for some time to find the expected temperature range for the day, and to decide whether I should bring an umbrella.

Later, I switched to using The Weather Channel free app, which, after a somewhat longer initial startup pause, provides a larger amount and different levels of detail for a variety of time segments (24 hours [up from 12 hours after an 8/2011 update], 36 hours, or 10 days). It has a number of other features, including "In Season", which provides 3 days' worth of pollen projections for Tree, Grass, and Weed types. The app has ads, not surprisingly. Normally I would just start up the app, find the information I want, and shut it down. While writing this entry I left the app running for a bit, and unexpectedly discovered that at least one of the ads had a life of its own, expanding to take up more space on the screen (although it did come with a close box). Unlike in the iPod's basic Weather app, to view weather for each location beyond the first one that you add, you must tap on the open book button, then switch to the desired location. This remains my primary weather app.

I have also tried the Weather+ Free app, whose main screen has ads plus a prominent "Upgrade to Full version!" nag reminder. The extra piece of information it has, about which I might occasionally care and which The Weather Channel free app lacks, is a humidity projection for the four days after today. Like in the iPod's basic Weather app, weather for any locations beyond the first one that you add can be viewed by sliding the screen left or right.